I am in Singapore. It is both hot and humid. The rain comes down suddenly each evening, and with a vengeance. The cab-driver tells me it is the monsoons coming in from Indonesia. ‘Monsoon’. It makes the weather sound exotic to someone like me. It was only recently that I found out monsoons are not so different from typhoons, and typhoons and hurricanes are just different names for the same weather formation. In truth, if I take away the word ‘monsoon’ then this is weather I am accustomed to – this tropical extravagance, this rain that tears the banana leaves, that sends the birds into hiding; and the sun that comes out after to make the whole city glisten in a steamy kind of bath.
Whenever the rain stops I also emerge from whichever awning I had been hiding under. As usual I am wandering about on my own. As usual, I have my camera. As usual I feel a strange guilt about this. It is not just the clichéd picture I am wary of taking; more generally I am wary of making people feel as if their everyday lives have become a spectacle.
I try to assuage my guilt. I say to myself: but isn’t the image of tourism today a smiling Asian (whether Japanese, or Chinese, or even Singaporean) walking on the streets with his 30X optical zoom Nikon or Canon camera, taking pictures of every god-almighty thing to the great annoyance of local commuters who just want to get on the subway or the bus without being blocked. I say to myself: if there is one place one ought not to feel guilty about taking pictures, it is in Japan, or China, or Singapore.
But I don’t convince myself. I secretly like the stereotype of the modern tourist. Sometimes I even think it is karma. I mean really – who was made a spectacle of first? You know – that old orientalism thingy Edward Said was rattling on about. Wasn’t it Asia that was first written about, photographed, drawn, depicted relentlessly? Wasn’t it the Asian who was first condemned to being either guru or geisha, wily chinaman or exotic soothsayer or whatever the West had decided to imagine him or her as? So really, if anyone has the right to stand in front of every building in New York and London with absolute impudence, taking out a Fuji or a Samsung camera, and exoticizing the shit out of Buckingham Palace and the Statue of Libery, it is the Asian tourist.
But my karma argument, much as I like it, isn’t always true either. People are never so noble as I like to imagine, or politics ever so simple, or the lines so straightly drawn. No, it isn’t about East or West any more, though it’s still about power. Pure and simple. It’s about who has the money to buy both camera and plane ticket and then descend upon a new landscape, consuming all its products and its images. It’s about who has the power to gaze. And this is why I feel guilty – because suddenly I have that power.
I remember being in Jamaica last year, or the year before, doing research for my last novel. I took my father’s jeep into deep rural Jamaica to see some old Revival Churches. I was aware of myself as an intruder, and so I tried to stay in the background. When they sang songs I would sing along if I knew the words. I would pray when they prayed. Yes, I did take a few photos, secretly, when I thought no one was watching. They weren’t very exciting photos. I didn’t take one of the woman who suddenly got into the spirit and walked in a huge circle around the room and then outside, swinging her cutlass, making other Revivalists have to duck out of her way. ‘You see how Bishopess nearly slice off mi neck! You see?’ exclaimed one man after he had escaped his sure and certain death with a matrix-like arching back of the neck.
Perhaps the most exciting photo opportunity that day in that Revival church was seized upon by a Japanese tourist. In the middle of a song a woman began to shiver wildly in her seats; a young Japanese man immediately began walking towards her. As the woman screamed in the ecstasy of worship, the man took out his Nikon camera, zoomed its lens right into her contorted face, and snapped a few pictures. I was both angry and jealous. And this Japanese man could not seek cover under the banner of the ‘traditionally exotified’ any more than I could. We both belonged to a new tribe – that of the monied and camera-ed. And I wonder if a certain responsibility comes with this. Deep down, I actually feel there are some pictures which should never be taken, and some stories that should never be written. Out of simple, fucking respect. And yes, I probably cannot argue this belief with absolute integrity, but it doesn’t stop me from believing it.
The strange thing is, in Singapore, what I most want to take pictures of are the disused chopsticks in the eating gallery at Tiong Bahru market. The chopsticks are every colour – green and yellow and orange and purple. There is something about the way they pile up against each other like rainbows that is quite beautiful, even with the gravies from pork or chicken or duck clinking to them. I feel a little strange taking out my camera, for what is more ordinary than cutlery? And yet this is the moment when one really ought to not to feel guilty. If I were a real photographer, maybe I would have known this sooner. For the most spectacular pictures are never of spectacular things. They are not of the Eiffel Tower or the Statue of Liberty or the Sydney Opera House. Not usually. Instead, they are pictures of everyday places and everyday things. Pictures of garbage bins, and wet streets, and toothbrushes. And we, who pass such things every day are asked to look at them again. And maybe this time we will find them beautiful. Maybe this time we will have an epiphany. And maybe we won’t. You see, it doesn’t matter. The point is just to look at them again.